“I wanted to help other families,” says Amy McKeown-Boyne. “That’s why we signed up for SPARK.”
SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge) is a national autism research initiative to investigate the genetic component to autism. The goal of SPARK is not only to better understand autism, but to accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.
It’s the largest autism study ever undertaken in the United States, collecting data from 50,000 individuals. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is one of a select group of 21 leading national research institutions chosen by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) to assist with recruitment.
The premise is simple: register your child online, supply a swab of saliva via a test kit, mail the sample to the lab. McKeown-Boyne says she’s participated in numerous research studies with her nine-year-old son, Patrick, and SPARK is the easiest. No blood draws, no complicated office visits — just a few swabs to participate in what will be a revolutionary autism study. (If you prefer to provide the DNA profile in person, you can also schedule an appointment at Children’s Hospital.)
At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Dr. Craig Erickson leads the SPARK program. He’s well-versed in autism research, having worked as the Director of the Christine Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Riley Hospital for nine years before moving to Cincinnati.
“With autism, every case is unique,” says Dr. Erickson. He explains that a study of this scale is the key to finding new connections with the DNA, as autism is known to have a strong genetic component. To date, approximately 50 genes have been identified that play a role in autism, and scientists estimate that an additional 300 or more are involved. By studying these genes, associated biological mechanisms and how genetics interact with various environmental factors, researchers can better understand the causes of autism.
What’s interesting about SPARK is that it looks at whole families for genetic clues. By analyzing DNA from multiple family members, researchers are better able to understand of the role of specific genes in the development of autism. Patients could find out there is a change in their DNA that might cause autism. For McKeown-Boyne, this made perfect sense:
“In our family, there are definitely members who display various tenets of autism,” she says. While none of her family members are on the spectrum, McKeown-Boyne says certain behavioral traits and sensory issues with family members are undeniable. “I believe in autism research; specifically the genetic piece of the equation.”
Hopefully, SPARK will also debunk the many myths surrounding the cause of autism. There are still several theories about what causes autism, but most researchers now believe that both genetic and environmental factors play key roles. SPARK using research to “scientifically prove” the link between genetics and autism will do wonders for the understanding and treatment of autism, explains Dr. Erickson.
McKeown-Boyne is hopeful: “The [autism] diagnosis impacts you in so many ways. If I can help other families in any way, I will. Research is the way to do this.”
Participation in SPARK is free; participants will also receive a small compensation for their time. All participants will remain anonymous; genetic information will be shared with other scientists, but will not be linked with participants’ names.
To learn more about SPARK or to register for the study, please visit www.SPARKforAutism.org/CincinnatiChildrens or call 513-636-0523.